When Anchorage Police got a report of an obnoxious driver with red and blue lights on his dashboard last weekend, they tried to find the car's owner from the photo of the Alaska license plate sent by a citizen.
Their search came up empty, said Jennifer Castro, the police spokeswoman. There was nothing in the usual listings provided by the Alaska Department of Motor Vehicles.
"I believe we called over to troopers and it wasn't their vehicle, so we had concern at that point," Castro said in an interview Wednesday.
The police asked the public to help them find the driver who was suspected of impersonating a police officer. The driver was white, in his 30s, and had short hair. A witness said the driver gave him the middle finger.
Two days after police released the man's description, they sent out another public statement.
"The agency acknowledged the vehicle was on official business at the time of the incident," said the police statement Monday.
It had taken police substantial detective work to track down the agency that owned the vehicle because the license plates were not registered in the normal DMV database.
Castro said police determined the SUV's owner after looking through "hundreds and thousands of reports using a search query." Castro said that the license plate turned up in a police report and was linked to an "ATF agent," though she said she didn't have specifics Wednesday on what the report said.
"I don't think it was because that vehicle had done something wrong," Castro said. "It was mentioned in a report because it happened to be on scene."
Police contacted the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Exposives, a U.S. Justice Department agency, which confirmed that the SUV was theirs, Castro said.
So why didn't it turn up in the state database of Alaska license plates?
Minta Montalbo, legislative liaison at the Alaska Department of Administration, said that all motor vehicles must be registered with the DMV; however, "certain law enforcement agencies have the power to request confidentiality."
No one has access to that confidential database, she said, not even other law enforcement agencies like the Anchorage Police Department.
"It's one of DMV's jobs to make sure we know what's on the street," Montalbo said. "We also have to protect the mission of law enforcement."
Montalbo said she could not confirm whether or not ATF's vehicles were in the confidential database. She said law enforcement agencies could have relationships outside of the DMV to access information on each other's vehicles.
ATF's Seattle office, which also oversees operations in Alaska, declined to answer questions Tuesday about the bureau's policies regarding unmarked vehicles or whether any disciplinary action had been taken. The office released a brief statement from special agent in charge Doug Dawson.
"ATF is aware of the allegations made in the complaint and is investigating the incident," Dawson said. "Further, as a matter of policy, ATF does not comment on personnel matters."
Castro said police only have access to the regular DMV database and its own database with Anchorage Police Department vehicles. She said police did not have separate access to ATF vehicle information. It isn't uncommon for the police to not have access to other agency's databases, she said.
"We have our own systems, our own softwares, our own tracking mechanisms," she said.
She said police had not yet heard the other side of the story from the man driving the white SUV owned by ATF.
The witness who originally called police said the man had tried to pull him over last Thursday as he drove northbound on the Glenn Highway around 5:30 p.m., police said.
"As the motorist yielded, the driver sped past him, laughed, and flipped him the middle finger," police reported in Saturday's public statement. "The complainant observed this occur three other times with the same results."
The witness did not call police until Friday, Castro said. Police said Monday that ATF would be conducting a personnel investigation.
Castro said people can identify Anchorage police vehicles because their license plates have government markings and special plate numbers beginning with the letter X. Marked police vehicles also include painted identification numbers.
But Castro said that's not the case with all agencies. The white SUV did not have a marked government plate.
Castro said drivers who are unsure whether they are being pulled over by an actual Anchorage police officer can call dispatchers at 907-786-8900 to check the authenticity of a police vehicle by its markings, or to confirm an officer's badge number.
If a driver called about an ATF vehicle again and the license plate could not be verified, police may send out an officer, Castro said.
"We'll work with people if they have a true, legit fear," she said.
Chris Klint contributed to this story.